Since she found Gen. Wesley Clark, Beatrice Moritz, a Manhattan photographer, has stopped hating George Bush … “Now I feel like I have an alternative because Wesley Clark, he’s going to win,” she says. “It makes me feel that I’m not going to waste my energy thinking about all the bad things Bush has done. I don’t hate Bush as a person. I went through a period of that, but I’m more focused now on the very positive experience of supporting a candidate who’s a real president, and I know it’s not just me. I feel it.”
Numerically, Clark’s ground troops are not yet any match for Dean’s, but if his momentum continues, they may be soon. In May, there were only a few hundred people registered to attend Clark events through the Internet organizing site MeetUp.com. Now he’s second only to Howard Dean on the site, with 40,100 people registered. (Dean, who pioneered the use of MeetUp as a campaign tool, has 124,800 people signed up.) And even if his followers are fewer than Dean’s, they’re just as fanatical. Clark is igniting a desperate hope in supporters, something they describe in the language of love and religion. He can save us, they say. Over and over, they use the same phrase: “He’s the one.”
Many of Clark’s followers say that while Dean speaks to their rage, Clark, four-star general, intellectual, humanitarian and war hero, speaks to their longing for something higher. “He’s obviously the best man at this time in history,” says Alexandra Richards, a New Jersey stay-at-home mother with a 2-year-old child and an unemployed husband. Figuring that their economic prospects are unlikely to improve as long as Bush is in office, Richards and her husband are considering selling their house and moving to Clark’s home base in Little Rock to volunteer for the campaign full-time. “Dean makes me angry about the present,” Richards writes in an e-mail. “Clark, on the other hand, gives me HOPE for the future. Hope feels better than anger.”
“A movement is a very important ingredient in this cycle because these candidates are not well known,” says Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s former campaign manager. Brazile, a loyal Democrat who has decided to sit out the primary fight, says, “The establishment has not blessed any one person. Therefore, because the race is wide open, having a movement will be an asset. Right now, the only two campaigns that exhibit that are the Dean campaign and the Clark campaign. Dean created a movement, Clark was started by one.”
Jaded Washington journalists often judge candidates by their ability to navigate the semiotic minefield of the press’s own obsessive scrutiny. In her 1988 essay “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion described the default attitude of most campaign chroniclers: “They speak of a candidate’s ‘performance,’ by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing.”
Clark’s followers feel attuned to something far more epic. In the story they see unfolding, America is at a low point in its history, threatened from without and plundered from within, led by a smug and reckless mediocrity who blithely aids the nation’s implosion. Patriotic moderates hear themselves denounced as traitors and despair that the country has entered a period of inexorable decline.
And then, just when it seems that American greatness has spent itself, into the breach comes a war hero, brilliant and brave, with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. John Hlinko, a founder of the Draft Clark movement who’s since joined Clark’s campaign staff, says, “He’s the president we were promised as children.”
To the general’s devotees, Clark summons up images of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reviving an exhausted, dispirited nation during the Depression. “We like calling General Clark the ‘Real Deal,'” says Alexandra Richards. “FDR was the New Deal, Truman was the Fair Deal, and Bush is the raw deal.”
Finally, Clark has support among a constituency that doesn’t relate to Dean at all — those who think that Bush is a basically decent man who’s doing a bad job as president…A 34-year-old who works for a hedge fund says, “Bush could be doing a better job, but he could be doing a worse job.” One 25-year-old investment banker in a blue suit and gray tie says his support for Bush “ebbs and flows,” and though he thinks the administration’s unilateralism has harmed America’s prestige, he believes the president was acting in good faith. Strident attacks on Bush’s legitimacy, the kind that thrill the Democrat’s activist base, don’t excite him. “I don’t want to vote for a candidate because I loathe the opposition,” he says.
Standing off to the side of the room, Nicomodos Sy Herrera, a 31-year-old Republican lawyer in a well-tailored suit, seemed almost surprised to find himself at a Democratic event. A pro-life hawk who’d been “a big Bush supporter” in 2000, he’d grown alarmed by Bush’s inability to “balance the hard and soft power of the U.S.” Now, he was considering changing his party affiliation in order to vote for Clark in the primary. “Bush was seduced too much by the hard right’s insistence that it had to go alone,” he says. “He made that bed, he has to sleep in it.” Still, while he says he doesn’t think Bush could win him back, he also says Clark is the only Democrat he would support.
“Those are exactly the kind of people you want,” Teixeira says of these Clark fans. “The people who hate Bush 24/7, those voters are not the Democrats’ problem. The Democrats’ problem are the people who say, ‘Goddamn it, he did a pretty good job after 9/11, but he’s really doing a lousy job now.’ That’s the sweet spot. Those are the voters you’re going to need to get in droves.”